Cinema is unlike any other artistic medium in one aspect; it is a visual manipulation of time and space. Filmmaking has the power to allow an audience to reach back in time and observe how the characters and places change between years or even decades. It allows us to understand the social conscious that undercut the society at the time, for example, horror films show us what society feared at the time of production, and early noir films allow us to see the post war paranoia at home and abroad.
Francois Truffaut experimented with the passage of time and space with his character Antoine Doinel who over the course of five separate films grows from the mischievous schoolboy in The 400 Blows to the heartbroken divorcé in Love on the Run. For Academy nominated Richard Linklater time and space is the primary motif in his work. He has articulated this fascination with time and space in cinema when discussing his work:
“It’s a big element, isn’t it, of our medium? The kind of manipulation of time. The perception of time. The control of time. Kind of the building blocks of cinema. Time is a really powerful factor but it is in all of our lives.”
From Richard Linklater’s pre-Slacker debut, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, to his most recent effort, Boyhood, the passage of time and space is his key to cinema. Taking the audience across the world and across various decades, all the while looking back to a time more simple, subtle, and innocent. It’s Impossible… never found a cinematic release but can be found as an extra on the Criterion Collection’s release of Slacker. For those of us who don’t have access to a region 1 player, the film can be found in its entirety on YouTube. To understand his connection between time, space, and cinema we have to look at this debut as a template for what he would continue to explore throughout his filmography.
Where to begin with It’s Impossible? One immediate point you might take away from the film is the time spent between the humdrum moments, which matter most in this docu-travelogue; whether it’s gazing into the horizon from the back carriage of a train or watching shadows creep along a floor. For Linklater, time and space have always taken precedent over any type of conventional structure.
Linklater’s most recent film, the Oscar nominated Boyhood, perfectly conveys hiss fascination with time and how his characters manoeuvre adolescence and the unpredictable paths that lie beyond. We saw this theme throughout his spectacular Before- trilogy in which the blossoming rise and inevitable fall of two love struck travellers took place over an eighteen-year span. It could be argued that even the location and time in Dazed and Confused plays a more important role than the structure of the narrative.
It’s Impossible… began production in the late eighties for a shoestring budget of $3,000, and the credits read as any amateur or student film credits might read; Linklater’s credits include writer, producer, director, cinematographer and editor, as well as the film’s gormless leading role. Throughout the film we follow Linklater’s nameless slacker as he navigates suburban Austin, shooting the shit with friends from college and spouting Russian proverbs (which the film snatches its title from). We are only given slices into the naturalistic conversations and bounce from apartment to apartment before our slacker protagonist backpacks across the middle of America. The movie is predominantly dialogue free, but the conversations we do hear don’t linger for long. Instead we get a general idea of the banter before Linklater moves on.
As mundane as this might sound to some there are flickers of beauty that show the early roots that feature in the director’s later works. We as an audience aren’t concerned with where or why we are traveling. Linklater is our guide and the camera allows the audience to place themselves within his world. The camera work within the movie is potentially the most objective we’ll ever see in a Linklater movie; we are never close to him on his journey and no close ups or coverage is presented. Kept at arms length we see montages of him hopping on and off trains. This static cinéma vérité style could be chalked up to Linklater’s lack of any real film crew, however, it is impressive that a lone filmmaker could fill the hour and a half running time all by himself.
Linklater certainly isn’t ostentatious with It’s Impossible… especially in comparison with his later work. Instead he positions his 8mm camera in a fixed spot and moves himself within the space. As we follow him on his inconsequential journey we begin to notice matching camera shots mirroring earlier passages of space and time. Be it from the back of a train, to the bubbling foam left in the wake of a ferry, or the long endless American highway roads that stretch into the horizon. Once you see all these images together – along with footage of Linklater navigating the train – you begin to see that the seemingly random camera positioning is actually a visual collage of what the movie is really about.
When discussing his debut, Richard Linklater has stated that his desire to become a director began during his stint on an offshore oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico where all he could do was devour books and movies. Add to that his cinematic diet of six hundred movies a year over a ten-year period and it is clear that Linklater knows his cinema history. Some of his big influences from this time include the likes of Bresson, Fassbinder, and of course the master of time and space, Ozu. Others not the similarity between Linklater’s work and the early films of Jim Jarmusch, such as Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise. Both filmmakers aren’t afraid of the mundane.
When you step back and look over his oeuvre you can see how Linklater digested his influences and boiled them down to their raw forms. Linklater was one of the early establishers of the nonchalant, youth counter-culture that was popular in 90’s cinema, inspiring a slue of fellow low-to-no budget filmmakers, such as Kevin Smith, to grab a camera and film banal conversations in humdrum towns.
What about Linklater’s work today? Is Boyhood simply an observation of a child’s growth like It’s Impossible… was for its teenage lead? Not quite. Boyhood’s title leads the audience to believe that the film focuses solely on the young boy, Mason, when in actual fact the film appears to be more interested in its background characters, most notably the mother figure played by Patricia Arquette, who nabbed Best Support Actor at this years Oscars.
However you feel about Boyhood, by comparison to It’s Impossible (which has a running time of only 86 minutes) the movie feels extremely bloated coming in at the three hour mark. Boyhood excels in parts, most notably in those moments in between the dialogue, much like his debut. From the family tree of video game consoles Mason plays to the change in his hair cut or clothes over the years, it’s only when you step back that you see Linklater’s main motif of time and space is important factor for its central characters.
Between It’s Impossible… and Boyhood, several of his other movies play on the theme of the passing of time and the uncertainty of the future, such as Before Sunrise (and its equally popular sequels), Slacker and SubUrbia, which follow twenty-somethings facing great uncertainty. His upcoming film, That’s What I’m Talking About, sees him return to familiar ground as it’s set to be the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused.
Like Ozu and Bergman who played with time and space in their films, Linklater joins them as a filmmaker who truly understands the connections between cinema and ourselves as we journey through time.